Young Eric Lomax (Jeremy Irvine) pockets a few vacuum tubes from the radio he is operating at the moment of his unit’s surrender to the Japanese. Eric and other prisoners fashion a radio receiver from the vacuum tubes and other parts they scavenge. The radio is a receiver only. It cannot transmit; it can only receive BBC news broadcasts. Eric and his compatriots are hungry for western news about the war – nothing nefarious; only news. When the guards discover this receiver all hell breaks loose.
Young Eric steps up to protect his coconspirators and endures unimaginable barbarity at the hand of his captors. His chief abuser is young Takashi Nagase (Tanroh Ishida.) While Nagase is only a translator, he is a relentless inquisitor who inflicts vicious beatings and other unspeakable torture on young Eric. Nagase is driven by his belief that the radio actually served other treacherous purposes. He has been blinded by the propaganda to which he has been exposed by his superiors and by an unremitting belief that Japan’s motives were correct and British motives corrupt. Young Eric is tortured and water-boarded to within an inch of his life and saved only by the end of the war.
Older Eric (Firth) meets Patti by chance on a train many years after the War. For inexplicable reasons beautiful Patti and frumpy Eric fall in love immediately and marry. This remarkably short courtship as depicted in the film denies Patti the opportunity to learn much about Eric and soon after their marriage she discovers that he harbors a deeply disturbing secret about his past. Through Eric’s war buddy, and fellow prisoner Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard,) she learns of the horrific experience Eric suffered at the hands of his captors in general and Nagase in particular. Eric will not discuss the abuse he suffered with his bride.
Decades after the War has ended Finlay discovers that Nagase has survived and is alive and well in Japan. Eric sets out to locate his tormentor and settle the score. Eric confronts his nemesis and turns the tables – Eric becomes the inquisitor and older Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada) the prisoner. Unable to exact the revenge he seeks Eric realizes that Nagase, while perversely inspired, was, in his own way, a casualty of war.
Eric’s fails in his effort to even his unevenable score. In an act of inconceivable compassion, however, Eric forgives Nagase. His nightmare over Eric is able to share the remainder of his life peacefully with Patti and his forgiven “brother in arms” Nagase.
The commonly used idiom “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” doesn’t quite work for the casting of Nicole Kidman as Patti Lomax. While this idiom suggests that you can’t make something beautiful out of something ugly, I propose that it should be reversed when talking about the selection of Kidman. Apparently the hair stylist, makeup artist and costume designer were not up to the task of making Ms. Kidman look dowdy and old enough for her part in this post WWII “ripped from the headlines” war story. None-the-less, Nicole Kidman is convincing as Patti.
In all other respects, this is a powerful film about the terrors of war and the victims (obvious and not-so-obvious) thereof. “The Railway Man” will bring tears of revulsion and ultimately joy to your eyes – it brought those tears to my eyes.